Editorial

Who Runs Israel's Army?

The proper way to formulate the army’s manpower policies is through political direction from the government and legislation by the Knesset. That’s the norm in democratic countries. But not here.

Members of the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion preparing for a training exercise. The battalion is permanently deployed on the Egyptian border.
Members of the mixed-gender Caracal Battalion preparing for a training exercise. The battalion is permanently deployed on the Egyptian border. Eliyahu Hershkovitz

An open letter by mainstream religious Zionist rabbis, in which they urged their community’s young men and women not to join mixed-gender combat units in the Israel Defense Forces until arrangements are made that will ensure separation between men and women, raises the question of who runs the army.

The proper way to formulate the army’s manpower policies, including the rules for women and men serving together, is through political direction from the government and legislation by the Knesset. That’s the norm in democratic countries. But not here.

In Israel, there has been an unacceptable practice for years in which the army conducts negotiations, generally far from the public eye, with the rabbis who head the hesder yeshivas (which combine Torah study with army service) and the religious pre-army academies. The rabbis condition their willingness to encourage their students to do combat service on the army’s willingness to draft service regulations that conform to their interpretation of halakha, or religious law. If the army is reluctant to comply with their demands, the rabbis threaten to urge their students to join frameworks that are less desirable from the army’s standpoint, such as ultra-Orthodox yeshivas (whose students can obtain unlimited draft deferrals) or noncombat units.

This theocratic behavior has served the rabbis well until now. The army’s latest mixed-gender service order even laid the groundwork for undermining women’s status in the army in the name of halakhic principles. But this order wasn’t enough for the rabbis, and now even the moderates among them – including, for the first time, female rabbis – are urging young men and women to avoid serving in mixed units, even if the army needs them there.

The rabbis explained that “we haven’t yet found solutions for how the requisite separation can be implemented.” In other words, they’re saying, we’re the ones who have to give the army our stamp of approval that implementation of the mixed-gender service order complies with our halakhic interpretations. Until we issue that approval, we’ll direct the students we educate toward other units by exploiting our influence over them.

This attitude is a challenge to the principles of control over the army in a democratic society. The defense minister must therefore cut this Gordian knot between the rabbis and the army, a knot that goes far beyond Rabbi Yigal Levinstein’s offensive speeches.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel